I know, I know. It's beautiful outside, there's news on the radio, and my library of CDs is just waiting to be played. But I can't put down Amy Hempel's The Collected Stories, nor do I want to. Amy Hempel is known as a miniaturist because her stories run, generally, four to eight pages. They fall into that category of fiction some call short-shorts and others, prose poems. Hempel's own term, "lyric surge," is probably more accurate. Her stories consist of a succession of sentences so impeccably crafted, the craft doesn't call attention to itself -- for this reason, I too often find myself stopping to try and figure out how on earth she does what she does. This is slow reading. A typical Hempel piece begins as a meditation. And just when we get comfortable with the subject, she introduces an element of dread, usually in the form of an off-color comment or brush with disaster or disturbing image. Then, once dread has made its brief appearance, she removes it and for the last page or two the reader realizes a deeper understanding of the entire meditation. The last page or two are revelatory.
In many of these pieces the climax (or height of dread) comes earlier than usual, somewhere closer to the middle, and the plots, when paraphrased, might not sound very interesting, though the reading itself is fascinating. So for instance, in "The Rest of God" a group of suburban neighbors spend a summer vacation at the beach, and "Nothing clever [is] said." On a glorious day while one of the wives, Fay, swims in the ocean with her children, the family is caught in a circular current. Luckily a male neighbor spots the trouble, throws the swimmers a rope, and rescues them. This close call, the narrator points out, would never have happened if the beach had been closed for a sewage leak (a "black surge"). But, she says, though a black surge DID roll in to the beach that summer, it arrived one day too late to prevent Fay's close call.
Later that same evening, the neighbors celebrate Fay's fortune by holding a barbecue on the beach, all the while indulging in the kinds of corny one-liners one might expect to hear from suburbanites who are tipsy in the presence of their children. Dusk turns to dark, and Fay discovers that the water is phosphorescent. Everyone watches her frolic in the glowing ocean, and then the phosphorescence disappears. The story ends when the narrator explains that the rest of the summer "passed quietly, the only pain was inflicted by bees." The vacationers knew a homemade remedy for stings whose ingredients could be found "in [their] own backyard[s]." This ending left me pondering the black surge for hours.
More than a few of Hempel's stories are structurally innovative, such as "And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station," which is a list of anecdotes, each told with the rhythm of a joke uttered by a good standup comic. Such as this one: "Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him up to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT." Most of these anecdotes feature one character misinterpreting another in a striking (and sometimes distastefully ironic) way. Hempel ends this piece by having her narrator explain that all these "things add up to enough weight to wear a person down. I," she writes, "am wearing down."
And finally, some stories have a more traditional structure, such as "At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom." This one begins at the birthday party of a black cat named Gully, who's squinting while flash cubes pop around her. Note that at the party, Gully is served cake. We learn that the cat belongs to Mrs. Carlin, an eccentric babysitter who -- though this is never directly stated -- no longer seems to have a husband. Mrs. Carlin is watching two boys, Pierson and Bret, while their parents are away at a business conference. When she serves them tofu patties, the boys discover that Mrs. Carlin is a vegetarian. She reminisces about her elderly dachshund while the boys grudgingly chew their tofu burgers. Suddenly, though, Mrs. Carlin is distracted by a disturbing thought about wolves being shot from airplanes. She excuses herself, goes to her room, and swallows two aspirin.
The next day Mrs. Carlin takes Pierson and Bret to visit the aquarium. The day after that she tries to bond with Bret by having him brush her dachsund, but because she's overly-sentimental on the subject of pets, Bret responds to her sentiment with cruel laughter. Then, when the boys are safely in school, Mrs. Carlin returns to the aquarium. All the while she finds herself preoccupied by what turn out to be voices and visions -- narrated scenes of animals being tortured and slaughtered by people. Her final vision is much too frightening to spoil by giving it away, but here's the end of it, and I'll give you one detail -- it's set at a picnic : "There is an indescribable sound from the choking dog, and like a person who suffers the pain of an injured twin, Mrs. Carlin gasps and drops to the floor." The floor, here, is in the "roundabout" room, or a room with a donut-shaped tank in which the viewer stands in the "hole" of the donut, watching the fish stream by. A passing couple discovers Mrs. Carlin there. They check her pulse, call for a guard, and in the final paragraph -- which consists of one sentence -- comes the revelation, which I simply can't tell you (Please, if you choose to read only one Amy Hempel story, make it this one! It's short, so it won't take much time!).
Hempel's world is an uneasy place where characters wait for real disaster to strike and their main way of coping is repression. She claims that her stories are about recovery and while I believe this is true, it's clear that recovery is not a place where one is left unaffected by dread. I suppose dread is a sign of these times, and in these times its representatives (such as Hempel's earthquakes and airplanes and crashes) come to us loaded with all kinds of baggage. It's odd that we'd want to read anything that reminds us of this. Unless there's some solace in reading a thing that captures what we collectively feel; maybe there's community in that. Or maybe it's just that when anxiety is remade as great art, we feel that it's somehow been mastered for us.